Knicks’ success without Julius Randle is worrying


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The Knicks survived Tuesday night. They wheezed and they sputtered for a bit, but they survived. They jumped out to an early 10-0 lead on the LeBron-less Lakers. They took a 25-point lead, and were probably one more 8-2 run away from Frank Vogel giving a sick and hurting Anthony Davis the night off.
The Lakers came back. Avery Bradley started making shots like World B. Free. Russell Westbrook turned the clock back to 2017. And while old friend Carmelo Anthony hit an icy patch with his shooting (he was shooting 46.1 percent from 3 before this 2-for-8) he also slammed home a dunk with 1:26 left in the third that tied the game at 79-79.
Still, the Knicks won, 106-100. They are at a portion of their schedule when they need to collect wins any way they can, and there is no requirement in the NBA bylaws to register with asterisks games won thanks to the absence of a star. This was the second game of a seven-game stretch against likely playoff qualifiers.
“We gathered ourselves,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said, “and finished it out well. That’s what we needed to do.”
There was a curious piece of that closeout, though. The Knicks never did let the Lakers take a lead. And the Knicks were playing short, too: No Derrick Rose, no Taj Gibson, no Mitchell Robinson. That meant for some make-it-up-as-they-went-along rotations. It meant, in theory, an extra long work shift for Julius Randle.
Except, in a four-second stretch with just over nine minutes left in the game, Randle picked up two quick fouls guarding his fellow Kentucky Wildcat ex-pat, Anthony Davis. They were his fourth and fifth fouls. Randle went to the bench, not happily. Davis sank two foul shots.
The Knicks led, 90-86. The Garden’s antennae crackled. Doom seemed imminent.
Except a funny thing happened.
The Knicks went on a run. Immanuel Quickley made a couple of 3s. Alec Burks made a shot and a couple of free throws. In less than four minutes it was a 15-7 spurt. It was a 105-93 Knicks lead. All of it with Randle on the bench. And one of the Lakers’ points actually came courtesy of Randle, after his foul-trouble frustration yielded a technical foul.
OK. Let’s take a full stop here.
This isn’t to suggest the Knicks are a better team without their best player. They are not. All you need to do is look at the full box score Randle put up Tuesday — 20 points, 16 rebounds, five assists — to be reminded that he is still, by far, their most essential player. That is a non-negotiable truth.
But so is this: this wasn’t the first time the Knicks have rallied in his absence this year.
And that, long term, is an issue. Right now it is clear Randle, on some nights, tries to shoulder every burden facing the Knicks. He has a new assortment of supporting players, and while Thibodeau recently labeled as “bulls–t” the notion that sometimes it takes time for players to jell, it’s clearly not. It does take patience. It will take patience.
Randle certainly believes that: “That stuff takes time, bro. Once it starts clicking, we’re going to be a really, really good team.”
Tuesday we finally got a full glimpse of what Evan Fournier (26 points, 6-for-9 from 3) is capable of, and it was Randle who set him up for some of those open looks; it hasn’t been easy getting those two on the same page. Same with Kemba Walker: sometimes, he and Randle look like they’ve been playing together for a decade, and sometimes they look like they were introduced in the pregame huddle.
And look: this isn’t all on Randle. He has to adjust, sure, but so do the new faces. Both factions need to make this work better than it has. A year ago, Randle could assert himself each night as the undisputed alpha dog in the Knicks lineup because there was no one to challenge that role, at least until Rose arrived.
The Knicks were his creation, Thibodeau his co-author. The ball was constantly in his hands, the offense went through him on every possession. It was glorious most nights.
It’s still that way in spasms. Just not as often. Not yet. The Knicks aren’t a better team without their best player, but they do sometimes play better without him because they aren’t forced to rely on him.
That has to evolve. That has to change. The Knicks are still capable of some terrific things this year. They will only get there in the company of Randle, not in spite of him.
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